Before all else, Compassion, by Bob Keller


There was a priest, a minister and a rabbi in a canoe and the boat was headed down the river straight toward a huge waterfall.  The priest said what do we do now?

I’m starting my message today like this because I’ve been taught that one way to engage an audience is to open your remarks with a joke or funny story.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember the rest of the joke!

So, instead, let me tell you a story.

Imagine for a moment that you and group of your friends have come up with a new product or service and you’re trying to get the word “out there” of the new and wondrous things that can be done with this new “thing.”

So you go to the local trade fair and display your “new and improved” item.  The reception is amazing!  People from all over are flocking to your booth.  The whole crowd can’t get close enough, so groups of people band together and send a “representative” in to see what you’re offering.

People start clamoring for your wares.  They think having it can really make their life, better, easier, faster, safer.  What a marketing job you’ve done.  This is better than the pocket fisherman, Ginzu knives and that broiling, rotating, rotisserie thing that makes your family love everything you cook.  They want it.  They need it, They believe in it.

You have a tremendously successful day!  So you and your buddies go celebrating your good fortune.  Hey!  This is easy stuff – everyone wants it!
It becomes late and you’re headed back to town.  Still “whooping it up” and you get stopped dead in your tracks.  The road is blocked with a funeral procession headed out of town.
Man!  What a downer!

This is kind of like what happened to Jesus, and those with him, on that day that David just read to us about.

The story in Luke that appears just before today’s scripture tells of the tremendous experience that Jesus and his followers had in Capernaum just before they headed to Nain.
There they were preaching the Good news and a Centurion, a member of the Roman Army, displayed a tremendous faith. 
As the story is told, a servant of the Centurion was gravely ill.  The Centurion heard of Jesus’ presence and sent some of the Jewish elders to seek Jesus and ask Him to heal his servant.
So Jesus started toward the Centurion’s home, but before he got there, the Centurion met Jesus on the way and “apologized” to Jesus for seeking him out.  He said, “Don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you under my roof.  That is why I did not consider coming to you myself, (but sent others).  But just say the word and my servant will be healed.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him and turned to his followers and said, “I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

Jesus was obviously impressed with the tremendous faith displayed by a Gentile, of all people.  The elders went back to the Centurion’s house and found the servant well.

One might view this as great faith being rewarded by God.

Now let’s go on the road with Jesus as he leaves Capernaum and goes to Nain.

Here, Jesus and his followers just had a great visit in the city.  People see His wonders and they want what Jesus is offering.  They believe in Him, and his “product.”  After all, they got to see “it” in action.  What possible reason was there not to be jubilant?

And then the sky fell.  On their way to the gate of the small town of Nain, they meet a funeral procession on the way out of town, heading toward the cemetery.  Now it wasn’t easy to miss a funeral procession in those days.  The body of the deceased was carried high on the shoulders of the pallbearers.  The mourners were loud – calling out and wailing.  This was to get the attention of all they passed by.  You see, everyone was expected to join in the procession. 

Wow – what a downer.  A jubilant visit in Capernaum and now this!  A sort of yin and yang, black and white, good and bad, love and hate, joy and sorrow, life and death, an ironic twist.

Jesus’ other miracles were performed on, or for, people of faith – just like the centurion.  We can look at the raising of Lazarus – an old family friend, and the faith of his sisters in asking Jesus to raise him up.  Touch me and I will see.  Say the word and I will be healed.  Say, “Be gone!” and the demon will leave me.

But here we see a widow; a widow with only one son, and now he’s gone.  In those days, this poor woman was lower than low.    With her husband gone, she had to depend on her son to care for her.  There were no widow’s survivor benefits.  There was no one left to carry on the family name.  She had no way to make a living.  She could possibly lose her home.  As a woman, she had no legal rights.  She could ask, but not demand, care from her husband’s relatives.  She would have to depend on the kindness of strangers to just get by.  What a way to live out the “golden years” of your life.  Empty.  Forgotten.  Despair. Hopelessness.  This woman had no faith.  Nor did she have any reason to have any.  All she had was tears.  Tears for all that she had, and lost.  And tears for what she knew she would face in the future.

And then the miracle happened.  And I’m not talking about Jesus saying, “Young man, I say to you, get up.”  The miracle I reference is when Jesus stopped the woman, the widow, and said simply, “Don’t cry.”

The miracle is Jesus’ compassion.  Compassion is defined as
a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
This is not to be confused with passion, which is similar in its definition of any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate, but doesn’t contain the same call to action.

That type of compassion is the hallmark of Christian love. The Lord gives food to the hungry and upholds the widow not out of some cosmic obligation, but out of compassionate love. God is moved by human suffering. For incomprehensible reasons, the creator of the universe, the one who made heaven and earth, grieves with us when we grieve, suffers with us when we suffer, and he keeps faith with us forever.

I hope you can recall Pastor Jeff’s sermon of last week where he talked about the big and small questions we face in life.

The big question here is “Why did God let this woman’s, this widow’s, son die?”  The big question is, “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?”
Or, today, the big question, that’s been turned into a statement by some evangelicals, is “God does bad things to punish his people that have gone astray.”  You’ll recall the statements that 9/11 happened because God was angry about the way the US supported gay rights.  And that Katrina happened because New Orleans was a city that needed cleansed of its evil ways.

I’m not qualified to answer the big questions any more than any of us are.  In fact, I sometimes get depressed when Jeff asks me to cover for him because I feel so woefully inadequate to understand the Scriptures.  Scriptures that I believe are the divinely inspired Word of God.  But that depression leaves me because I find that God is there.
However, I get more depressed when I hear those speak with authority and tell us that God sometimes hates us and carries out divine judgment upon his people.  How can that happen if, as God said, we are created in His image and he said he loves us?

It’s one of the “big questions.”  But making God the scapegoat for all of life’s tragedies – the earthquakes, the hurricanes, the floods, the volcanoes, the illnesses and accidents and the deaths of our loved ones – is the “easy” answer.  Somehow, they would lead us to believe that God decides and does these things as he plays games with His human family.

In one of his sermons, a Lutheran minister, Tim Zingale, said:
“While it is true that God works in all circumstances, it is not true that God wills and decides all of the individual experiences that make up our lives. God does not snuff out the life of an infant or small child. He does not create a tragedy that takes the life of a young person who is struggling toward adulthood. He does not decide that a parent will become a victim of cancer and die a slow death leaving a family in anguish and chaos. He does not decide to inflict a person with a chronic and disabling condition just to test that person’s faith. We have no right to blame God for the adversities that come our way. He does not cause death or suffering, but he works in these things that are part of the human condition of sin to bring goodness. He does not place the cross on our shoulders.”

So the little question is “Does God love us.”  And there’s a little answer, with big implications – Yes, he does.
And of course, there’s the bonus question – “Why?”
Now this may be a “Big” or a “Little” question, depending on your viewpoint and circumstance at any given time.
Psychologists call it imprinting.  It’s been imprinted on us that our God is a vengeful, judgmental God that punishes us for our wrongdoing.  It’s our human nature to blame someone else for our troubles, to find a scapegoat.

But today’s lesson makes me insist otherwise.  Our God is a compassionate God.  He feels our pain, he experiences our suffering, he cries when we cry.  Why?  Because he was here.  He lived our life.  He experienced the suffering.  He felt the joy and the happiness, but he also felt the loneliness and the brokenness and the pain – greater than any pain most of us will ever endure   Do you really think that God would say, “Hey, I went through it, you can, too!”

When we’re at out lowest – the point when we believe. like that widow probably did, that life, as we know it is finished, God is there.  That’s when we most need, and want, God’s intervention in our lives – when we feel the most hopeless and alone.
I’ve been through a few funerals in my life – thankfully, none of them my own – and I can tell you that the most appreciated sympathy has come from those that were simply ‘there.’  Not those that filled my ears with justifying and potentially hopeful scriptures.  Not those that sought to speak to God’s reason for this to have happened.  But those that were just ‘there.’

And our God is there.
Newspapers several years ago carried the story of a reporter covering the war in Sarajevo. It happened that a little girl walking on the street right in front of him was severely wounded by sniper fire. Before the reporter could react, a man had scooped up the little girl and was pleading with the reporter to drive them to the hospital.
“You have a car,” the man begged. “Please won’t you take us to the hospital?”
What could the reporter do? Without hesitating, he loaded them into the back seat of his car and began to drive.
After a minute or two, the man said urgently, “Please, hurry; she is still living!”
The reporter drove on. A few minutes later, the man in
the back seat said, “Hurry, please, my little girl is still breathing!”
The reporter sped on. Yet a few minutes later, the man said, “Hurry, please, my little girl is still warm.”
Soon, they pulled up to the hospital, but alas, the girl was pronounced dead.
The man and the reporter went into the restroom together to wash the child’s blood from their hands.
 “Now comes the hardest part,” said the man.
 “What is that?” asked the reporter.
“Now I have to go and find that little girl’s father and tell him she is gone.”
The reporter was stunned. “But I thought you were the father!”
“Aren’t they all our children?” the man replied.
Nikos Kazantzakis once described an experience of returning to his native Crete. As he walked along, an elderly woman passed by, carrying a basket of figs. “She halted and lifting the two or three fig leaves which covered the basket, she picked out two and presented them to me. `Do you know me, old lady?” I asked. She glanced at me in amazement. `No, my boy. Do I have to know you to give you something? You are a human being, aren’t you? So am I. Isn’t that enough?”

J. Walter Cross, who tells this story, continues this cadence… “You are a child, I am a mother. That’s enough. You are a son, I am a father. That’s enough. We are brothers and sisters. That’s enough. I am your God, you are my people. That’s enough.”

And our God has compassion, even when we, like that widow, have no reason to have faith.  That is enough.

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